On the Trail

The New Gold Rush: The Wild World of Baja California Wines

Kate Soto

Imagine being part of Napa in the early years, before the Judgement of Paris. Imagine the energy and excitement of the handful of producers who’d left graduate school or the movie biz to buy a piece of land and play out their dreams of making wine, without any assurance they’d succeed. Imagine making wines before there were appellation rules, before land was $200,000 or more an acre, before there was even a real market for your wines. Imagine the thrill of being part of a revolution.

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If you close your eyes and imagine that energy, you’ll find yourself with a good sense of what it’s like to be in Baja California these days. Though it’s only about a two hour drive south of San Diego, it’s a hotbed of vinous and culinary experimentation. And Valle de Guadalupe, just to the east of Ensenada, is ground zero. With a dry Mediterranean-like climate and Pacific Ocean influence, a panoply of grapes can thrive there, and, in fact, over 125 varietals currently do. You’ll find Spanish, Italian, and French grapes alongside non-vinifera grapes like Mission. And, thanks to no regulation, there’s no limit to what a creative winemaker can do. Wild blends and esoteric projects--Nebbiolo and Tempranillo? No-skin-contact Mission white?--that actually, impossibly work. Tom Bracamontes is the force behind La Competencia Imports, and he’s one of the best advocates for Mexican wine out there. He says, “Everything grows a little differently down there because of the extreme nature. Things that on paper sound abysmal, like a Tempranillo-Nebbiolo blend, you go down there and try it and realize you can’t believe it tastes like that.” The only real restriction is a tax code that taxes wine over 14% abv, but this works to ensure that most wines maintain a refreshingly moderate alcohol.

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The country itself is in the middle of a gastronomic explosion, and Baja’s fresh, Mexican-Mediterranean style has diners from all over seeking out their seafood-based cuisine.  And finally, after a long tradition of drinking beer or international wines, people can order high-quality Mexican wines to accompany their meals. In fact, Bracamontes gives the consumer credit for being ahead of the industry. “For years, if you were a consumer you drank French, Italian, Spanish, Argentinian, Chilean wines, but in the last 5 to 7 years, you’ve seen a--I don’t want to call it a cultural reawakening--but as the wines have gotten better, there’s the cultural pride in knowing you can have a meal made by a great Mexican chef in a great Mexican city with a great Mexican wine.” It’s only been in the last few years that wines in any number are making their way north. And this is great news for the thirsty Californians lucky enough to get their hands on some.

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Mexico is the oldest wine-producing country in the Americas, thanks to Spanish conquistadores who brought the vine to the area in the 1500s. It was a Mexican, Father Juan Ugarte, who spread viticulture north to California in the first place. But Mexico’s own wine culture was halted at the end of the 17th century when the Spanish king cut out his competition by prohibiting winemaking in his colonies. Thankfully, sacramental wine was spared, and thus the technical know-how and many old vines survived. In the mid-eighties, when wine was experiencing a Statewide resurgence, the vintners south of the border began to reevaluate the country’s own potential.

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And its potential is no small matter: The terroir itself provides a unique context for growing grapes. Many of Baja’s vines are ungrafted (sandy soils have kept phylloxera at bay) and old. Ample sun ripens grapes, but transverse east-west canyons funnel cool ocean air into the valley to keep the grapes cool, much like the Sta. Rita Hills. Mexican vintners have experienced an even more extreme version of the drought as Southern California in the last seven years, so water is absolutely key to everything, including the future of the region. Some tap into their quickly diminishing water table for drip irrigation, while many practice dry farming. In general yields are very low (“microscopic” says Bracamontes). But the grapes that do thrive are true survivors, creating flavorful, concentrated wines. Saline in their water table also contributes a uniquely savory quality that pairs with the seafood-based cuisine like gold.

Indeed, their potential has piqued the interests of investors and winemakers all over the world. One of the great success stories of the region is in the form of Bodegas Lurton, founded by Henri Lurton of Château Brane-Cantenac in Margaux. Their winemaker, Lourdes Martinez Ojeda, grew up in Ensenada and moved to Bordeaux to learn the trade when she was 18. After ten years at Château Brane-Cantenac, Lurton sent her back to Mexico to head the winemaking program at their new winery. Says Bracamontes: “It’s a great story of a woman who had the guts to go to Bordeaux and came back, speaking three languages, as arguably one of the best winemakers in Baja. She invited the Lurton family to Baja and within three days of being there they were ready to invest. “

This type of excitement--the kind that has investors staking their claim on Baja after mere days--is palpable when you talk to Mexican wine enthusiasts. There’s the feeling of the wild west: what do you get when there’s no restrictions besides an abv ceiling and your wildest imagination? It’s this energy that has drawn “the young somms,” as Bracamontes puts it. “It’s like an incredible wine laboratory. If you’re a wine geek like me, there’s no place to go and have more fun anywhere in the world than down in Baja.”

Discover K&L's Wines from Baja:

2014 Totol "Icono" Rosso Baja California
80% Mourvedre, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon
$29.99

2015 Bodegas de Santo Tomás Tempranillo-Cabernet Sauvignon Baja California
$19.99

2015 Vena Cava "Big Blend" Red Baja California
$31.99

2014 Vinedos Malagon "Equua" Baja California
70% Grenache, 30% Petite Sirah
$29.99

2014 Solar Fortun "O Positivo" Baja California
50% Cabernet Sauvignon and 50% Syrah
$34.99

2016 Bodegas Henri Lurton Chenin Blanc Baja California
$24.99

2016 Vinedos Malagon "Tinto Malagon" Baja California
Grenache 35%, Cabernet 25%, Petite Sirah 20%, Merlot 15%, Nebbiolo 5%
$23.99

 

- Kate Soto